The deal to end the partial U.S. government shutdown, allowing NASA and other federal employees to return to work, is obviously a good thing, but it doesn’t undo the damage caused by the stoppage. More importantly, it does nothing to address the ongoing budgetary turmoil that makes it difficult for agencies like NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense — the vast majority of Pentagon employees returned to work shortly after the shutdown began — to maintain existing space programs, and all but impossible to plan for the future.
What’s more, Senate-House agreement, which also raised the U.S. debt ceiling to avert what many feared would have been an economically catastrophic U.S. default on loan repayments, is good for only a few months. That means that barring that ever-elusive grand bargain between Democrats and Republicans on long-term federal spending, the government could find itself back in shutdown mode come mid-January, and facing a potential default a month or so later.
Running the government in general, and in particular managing space programs that are expensive, technologically complex, and take years to develop and deploy, is challenging enough in the absence of serial fiscal crises. The fact that these crises are manufactured and manipulated by warring political parties makes it all the more galling. Couple that uncertainty with sequestration’s indiscriminate budget cuts and Congress’ inability to consistently pass real spending bills — continuing resolutions that fund agencies at prior-year levels are a cop-out — and one can get a sense of what planners are up against.
During the current truce, NASA and others can assess the damage caused by the shutdown — the likely cost growth and delays on various civil space programs can be measured; the impact on morale is difficult to quantify — and do their best to recover. The same holds true for private companies whose business plans were delayed or disrupted by the shutdown.
The lawmakers who forced the government closure, meanwhile, have a brief opportunity to reflect on what they’ve done, not only to the agencies and people directly affected but also to the nation’s global stature, both in general and as a leader in space activities. While they’re at it, they also can consider what it’s done for their own political fortunes, or those of their party.
Perhaps this sorry episode will motivate Republicans and Democrats alike to negotiate a real budget for the remainder of the current fiscal year and to finally get serious about a longer-term deal that begins to address the nation’s crushing debt while diffusing at least some of sequestration’s more onerous impacts. Given recent history, however, it’s hard to be optimistic.
U.S. government space agencies — primarily NASA, the Pentagon and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — can certainly hope for the best but would be wise to plan for the worst. That means assuming — barring concrete evidence to the contrary — that sequestration is here to stay. While the agencies in theory will have more flexibility in apportioning the cuts than when sequestration first kicked in in March, they’ll nonetheless need to dial back expectations, avoid — to the extent that Congress and the White House permit — unsustainable investment projects and embrace nontraditional means of getting the job done. The rest is out of their hands.